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Calling on Humanities Thinkers to Change the Energy Discussion

“This is not an engineering discussion. It is a humanities one,” Bruce Oreck, U.S. Ambassador to Finland, told an auditorium full of engineers this week at the World Renewable Energy Forum in Denver.

Paraphrasing great thinkers such as Aristotle, Einstein, and Newton, Oreck said, “Words don’t just describe what we think. They shape what we think. Language is so important that it exerts a hidden power, like the moon’s effect on the tide.”

Oreck, who currently is leading an effort to improve building efficiency at U.S. embassies in Europe, was not talking about unlocking the secrets of universe. He was sounding the alarm for climate change and how to frame the debate. His weapon of choice: language.

Given the importance of language in influencing public opinion, Oreck argued that we need better ways of communicating the benefits of renewable energy, and that the current terminology leaves a lot to be desired.

“‘Go green’ is a horrible expression!” Oreck said as he projected a picture of a long-haired, skinny couple wearing tie-dyed t-shirts. “‘Green’ evokes an image of Woodstock. People associate ‘green’ with being a hippie.” (Oreck clarified that he did not choose the name for the State Department organization that he leads, the League of Green Embassies.)

Another target for Oreck: the phrase “save energy.” Dictionary definitions of “save” range from “to rescue from sin” and “to spend less,” both of which signify weakness or something “hanging by a thread.” Compare this meaning with “earn”, which means, “to be worthy of”. “This is a power word,” Oreck said. “The English language has 250,000 words. We can choose better.”

The shale gas rush in the United States has generated plenty of press for its potential to boost the country’s energy independence and create opportunity for investors, but according to Oreck, the investment potential in renewable energy goes relatively unpublicized.

“We need to do a better job making this case,” said Oreck. “Why do we describe ourselves as savers?” Our proposition should be, “Would you like to earn money with less risk?”

Playing on the classic definition of insanity, Oreck noted that “we’ve been saying the same thing for decades and expecting different results.”

He called for a revision in strategy: “Language affects what we see, and our words hold us back.”

Language can be an asset. Let’s be more creative with it.